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In the Beginning, There Was a Nipple

Ten years ago, 90 million people watching Super Bowl XXXVIII saw Janet Jackson's breast for nine-sixteenths of a second. Our culture would never be the same.

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This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 3 Music Issue. SUBSCRIBE

Editor's note: This story about Justin Timberlake's first Super Bowl halftime performance was published in 2014. Timberlake will again be performing at the Super Bowl this season.

IF OUR CHILDREN or our children's children ever dig up a time capsule from the beginning of the new millennium, they will find that in February 2004, America collectively lost its damn mind. Here's what they'll see: Janet Jackson on a stage in the middle of Houston's Reliant Stadium, wearing a leather kilt and bustier, surrounded by dancers in corsets and bikini tops and bowler hats and helmets, looking like a ragtag steampunk army of cabaret chorus girls and Highlander extras and BDSM enthusiasts. They're grinding their hips, Janet is caressing her corseted torso and 71,000 Super Bowl spectators are screaming themselves hoarse for the beatboxing of a 23-year-old white boy. Justin Timberlake emerges from an elevated platform beneath the stage in too-big khakis and a too-big jacket -- pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! -- and a brass band blasts him into "Rock Your Body," a song from his first solo album. He and Janet are romping across the stage, pausing their cat-and-mouse game every so often to work her booty into his hips. They're singing call and response:

Talk to me boy ...

No disrespect I don't mean no harm

Talk to me boy ...

I can't wait to have you in my arms

Talk to me boy ...

They're marching up the steps, to a platform in the middle of the stage.

Hurry up 'cause you're taking too long

Talk to me boy ...

Better have you naked by the end of this song.

You know what happens next. Justin reaches over, grabs a corner of Janet's right breast cup and gives it a hard tug. Her breast spills out. It's way more than a handful, but a hand is the only thing Janet has available to cover it, so she clutches it with her left palm. The breast is on television for 9/16 of a second. The camera cuts wide. Fireworks explode from the stage. Cue the end of halftime. Cue the beginning of one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in America since the Salem witch trials.

Justin Timberlake never fully explained his role in exposing Janet Jackson, and Jackson said later she was upset that he remained mostly silent when people blamed her for Nipplegate. David Phillip/AP Images

Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake

David Phillip/AP Images

THE WOMAN WHO planned the show wasn't on the field to see her months of work go up in flames. Salli Frattini, an executive producer at MTV, which was contracted by the NFL to produce the halftime concert, was supervising from the production truck outside the stadium. She and her crew were riding high on the adrenaline of pulling off a 12-minute spectacular of music and choreography and pyrotechnics. When it ended, the truck erupted with cheering and high-fiving and hugging. The euphoria lasted just a few seconds before the phone rang. The officiating booth was calling, wanting to know whether they'd really just seen Janet Jackson's boob.

The man on the phone was Jim Steeg, who had been head of special events for the NFL since the late 1970s, overseeing the evolution of the halftime show from a small-scale production featuring marching bands and dancing snowflakes and local heritage celebrations to full-scale rock extravaganzas starring the likes of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Aerosmith. When Nipplegate happened, Steeg was sitting next to the league's head of officiating, who was TiVo-ing the event. "He rewound it for me, and then I immediately called Salli," he says. "You could hear everyone screaming and hollering because what they pulled off and accomplished was over. I said to Salli, 'Did you see what just happened?'"

"We were like, 'Uh, we're playing that back right now,'" Frattini says. "There was lots of chaos in the truck, and we played it back and we were like, 'Oh, s -- . What just happened?'"

Frattini stepped out of the truck and immediately ran into then-CBS Sports president Sean McManus. He looked her in the eye and asked gravely, "Did you guys know?" Frattini promised she had no idea that Jackson was going to be exposed. "Okay. That's what I needed to know," she remembers him saying.

Whether Frattini or the higher-ups at MTV, CBS and/or the NFL knew what was coming remains one of the enduring mysteries of the event -- at least that's the generous explanation for why millions of people watched the clip with the same intensity as that of JFK conspiracy theorists poring over the Zapruder footage. To this day it remains the most watched video in the history of TiVo, becoming such a touchstone that "wardrobe malfunction" soon earned a dictionary definition and Nipplegate became a household word. (For the record, not much areola was even visible underneath Jackson's large starburst nipple shield.)

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EDITOR'S NOTE

This story contains mature subject matter and language.